Nancy Scott Hanway

Meeting Fictional Characters - Part 2

Nancy Scott HanwayComment

These encounters (writers meeting fictional characters) happen more often than you think. Comic book writer Alan Moore says he spotted John Constantine, from his Hellblazer series, in a London sandwich shop. (BTW, Moore says he based the character on Sting, which explains the reference.)

All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut—he looked—no, he didn't even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.

I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I'm not making any claims to anything. I'm just saying that it happened. Strange little story. (from a 1994 interview in Wizard Magazine, qtd. in Wikipedia)

I love the fact that Moore didn't go around the corner. That he was scared by the character he brought to life. (Although Constantine could just as easily have been scared by his creator: Moore looks like a badass god. His Wikipedia page says he's "an occultist, an anarchist, and a ceremonial magician," whatever the hell that means.)

But anyway, it makes me think it's best I didn't meet my character the other day. Maybe it's like time travel, where it's dangerous to meet your former or future self. Meeting your character could create cracks in reality.

They say that Neil Gaiman met Death. That's a story I'd like to hear.

"Alan Moore" (CC photo by fimb on Flicker. Cropped original)

Meeting fictional characters in real life

The Criminal GeneNancy Scott Hanway1 Comment

The other day, my husband’s car got sideswiped by one of my characters. A little old lady in a big Buick whacked him as she left a parking space. She looked straight at him, backed up, and sped off. He got out of the car and ran through the parking lot to where she was stopped at a light. He rapped on her window. She locked her doors before sliding down the glass. Lady, irritated: “Can I help you? Cecil: “You just hit my car!” Lady: “Not very hard!”

He made her turn around and come back, so he could inspect the damage. She did, sulkily. There was a dent, but it would be more trouble than our ancient Volvo was worth to get fixed. She said, “I told you,” and left.

I was so sad I wasn’t there. She could so easily be Eugenia, the head of my fictional gang of old lady car thieves. Have you met fictional characters (yours or someone else’s) in real life?

Best new female character: Eva Zorelli

Great Female CharactersNancy Scott Hanway10 Comments

Who are your favorite female characters in YA fiction? Ever since I was a kid, I've loved young adult books with strong female characters. Sassy, flawed ones, like Harriet from Harriet the Spy or Claudia Kincaid of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Sweet-but-bad girls like my friends: loyal to the end, funny as shit, curious, kind, rebellious. I adore them even though they (like me) sometimes make truly terrible decisions.

My friend Callie Cardamon just finished a young adult novel (Eva Zorelli Brings On the Rain) narrated by a sixteen-year-old girl, another lovable and pissed-off heroine. Here’s the plot: When she loses her best friend to an accident, Eva Zorelli falls apart, lashing out at everyone around her. Her actions lead her to juvenile court where she is forced to choose between attending Rain Dance—a New Age program for troubled kids—or going to juvenile detention. As ludicrous as Rain Dance sounds, it's better than detention, so Eva agrees to go. Once there, the irrepressible Eva becomes the punching bag of the spiritual director, a deceitful bully who wants to break her spirit. Eva finds a way to save herself, a vulnerable nine-year old girl, and a brilliant seventeen-year old boy, while bringing down the spiritual director.

I finished the book, called Callie, and said, “Don’t get me wrong, honey, I love you, but put Eva on the phone!” That’s how much I fell for Eva. I was pulling for her the entire time. If I had read this novel as a kid, I would have been obsessed.

If you want to read it right away, you’ll have to talk to Callie herself (or her agent, Jacques de Spoelberch). Or you can talk to me, and I will put in a good word for you.  Some lucky publisher will eventually get it, after the bidding war, of course.

Okay, so who are your favorite female characters in YA or adult novels?  Why? What novels should everyone read?

Callie Cardamon

Callie Cardamon


Stealing your moon from the right part of the sky

UncategorizedNancy Scott Hanway2 Comments

Research hits the sweet spot for me. When writing gets tough, other people clean their kitchens as a way to avoid the computer. My kitchen stays messy. I get lost in old newspaper articles, diaries, and histories. And with my novel, I was faced with questions about my characters that only research could solve. For example: what motivates someone to choose crime as a profession? I have an entire gang of old ladies who steal cars, fence stolen goods, and help with the odd bank robbery or jewelry heist. My main character's great-aunts, Wilma and Eugenia, are intent on passing down the family business to young Nina.

In trying to understand their motivation, I set up an entire genealogical chart for my criminal family of women: starting with Sarah Burd, a domineering Virginian married to a revolutionary colonel. About to lose their farm because of her husband's devotion to the revolutionary cause, Sarah stole a pair of garnet earrings from Martha Washington at a ball. I kept going from there, and it became an obsessive exercise. I continued the entire family line through the 19th century (Mary Lincoln got fleeced in a Burd family financial scam) and up to the 20th. None of this research made it into the novel, but it got me immersed in criminal cultures.

Some of the best histories about crime and women are about England, and I read those, too, discovering the story of the great pearl heist (now a nonfiction book) with, I was delighted to find, a gang of women thieves.

Eventually--like the  9 pound dog who eats a 5 pound bag of sugar*--I was so full of information that I had to stop.  And what did I find out? People treat crime as a profession for many reasons. What they all share is a feeling that they can away with it, that they're smarter than the rest of the world, and that the really good ones also do it because they are so good at it that they can't bear to stop. That was helpful in building character. When asked by Nina why they don't stop stealing since they have so much money, Eugenia says, "It would be a real crime not to do our art. That's how we're not like other criminals."

In the novel, I start the family criminal enterprise with great-grandmother Nanabelle Lindstrom, a brilliant and ruthless gambler from Minnesota, who meets her future husband when she cheats at blackjack in his speakeasy. I based their relationship on my (virtuous) grandparents' story, but that's a different tale.

I also found out (no surprises here) that most Hollywood movies get it wrong. Safecrackers laugh at all safecracking scenes, just like my lawyer husband can't stand watching your average courtroom drama. This leads me to the title for this post, which is based on a quote from Eudora Welty, and comes from her memoir One Writer's Beginning.

“I never found out the moon didn’t come up in the west until I was a writer and Herschel Brickell, the literary critic, told me after I misplaced it in a story. He said valuable words to me about my new profession: ‘Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.’”

*from a story told by Kurt Braunohler on This American Life


Novel Research, The Criminal GeneNancy Scott Hanway1 Comment

“First thing you do,” I told him, “is make a mental list of all the security precautions.”  We were about to case Big-Name jewelry store in suburban Minneapolis, and it was my son’s job to memorize the locations of security cameras, the number of guards, and hunt down the alarm systems. Teenagers are great for that—their brains can hyper-focus—and when accompanied by a parent, they can look around aimlessly without anyone growing suspicious. While Griffin was checking out security, I was going to engage store clerks in conversation, and see what they did if I dropped a ring. This was my objective: I wanted to see whether I could replace a real diamond with a fake while the clerks weren’t looking.  

I approached the clerk with my story: “It’s our twentieth anniversary in a couple days, and my husband sent me over to pick out a present.”


This is not my husband’s style at all. He’s sweet and thoughtful as a gift-giver, taking his time, consulting friends. But for this occasion, I invented a crabby, mega bucks guy, who didn’t devote much time to me, but who was willing to shell out thousands on high-class rocks. And I had to pick them out myself.

“When do you get new diamonds?” I asked.

“We don’t have regular deliveries,” the clerk said politely. He was good. He wasn’t giving me specific information, but he did it well so as not to offend. This denotes training, which I admire.

“I’m not sure I like any of these,” I said, waving at the velvet-lined case in front of me.

I picked up the first band—platinum studded with diamonds and emeralds—sliding it onto my finger and turning to Griffin. “What do you think, Sweetie?”

Griffin shook his head. “It’s fine. Can we go?”

I appealed to the clerk. “Don’t you think he needs to learn about diamonds? You know, the three C’s?”

The clerk smiled, and launched into the speech about color, cut and clarity. Griffin actually listened as I pulled the ring off my finger, and the diamond dropped onto the floor. When I stood up with it, the clerk took it from me calmly and examined it through a loupe. He wasn’t being disrespectful or even suspicious. He was probably examining the setting for damage, but the loupe would also tell him whether I’d done a switch.

As I tried on more rings, Griffin ranged along the case, sucking on a Tootsie roll pop. When he finished, he poked his head around the back of the counter. “Excuse me!” a woman called to him. “You can’t go back there!”

“Sorry,” he said sullenly.  “Just wanted to throw away some garbage.”

When we left, Griffin gave me the run-down: three cameras, showing practically every angle of the store. Armed security guard, demonstrating interest in the customers. A sophisticated alarm system blinking behind the counter. The clerk never let the diamond out of his sight, and he’d given it that good long hard look through the loupe. Not a good place to do a switch. You could never replace a real diamond with a fake under his watchful gaze.

Several streets over, I tried on multiple rings, dropping a $10,000 solitaire onto the floor.  I dropped it a second time to be sure. The owner was so casual about it that I assumed the diamond was a fake, that they had synthetic stones in real settings, like some places do. Finally I looked at it through the loupe, seeing the little cuts and imperfections of a real stone. This rock was real. “Nice,” I said.

As Griffin and I left, I clucked over the lack of precautions. “I could have replaced that ring with a fake three times over,” I said. “And we could have had someone waiting for us at the exit, or we could have just handed it off to someone in the gang.”

“We don’t have a gang,” my son said. “Remember?”

“I’m just saying, is all.”

“You know, Mother,” he said.  “This is not exactly Parenting 101, what if I end up as a thief?”

The teenager’s delight: torturing parents with what-ifs about their future.

“I prefer to think of it as teaching you how to be observant,” I said. “What if you end up as a novelist?” As we sat in the car I wrote down all the details I remembered. The pained look on the first clerk’s face when I dropped the ring, and the second clerk’s lack of suspicion: chatting happily with me about the ring he bought his wife for their anniversary. Griffin added details about how the store owner took a call and actually turned his back to us.

“Maybe we were acting so much like people who weren’t going to steal,” Griffin said, “that he could tell.”

And this is how novels get written. Or at least, this is how my novel, The Criminal Gene, is getting written. It is a coming-of-age story about a girl who discovers, at the age of sixteen, that she comes from a family of female criminal masterminds: a bildüngsroman with intent.

In the novel, there’s a scene where my protagonist Nina cases jewelry stores with her grandmother’s best friend, Aggie. Aggie makes Nina take note of all the security precautions, just like I did with Griffin. To finish writing the scene, I needed to take notes on how I felt while this was going on, and on how an essentially honest person would feel while planning felony theft.

I find that I need to try out a lot of scenes beforehand; I need to know how my characters might be feeling, how people respond to them, the smells and sounds, the nervous sweat.  I have to inhabit their bodies, and feel the space around me, sense the weight of the air. And I do tons of research, losing myself in old newspaper articles, sometimes getting lost in stories that never make it into the novel.

Something you should know, by the way, is that switching out a real diamond for a fake is difficult. It’s almost never done, in part because most crooks prefer what’s called “smash and grabs,” which are easy, fast, and hard to protect against.

You should also know that I changed some details so that people who live here can’t recognize the stores.